Some people seem to think that empathy has no place at work…that work requires a hard-nose, logic, and checking your emotions at the door. But, in periods of change, emotions—which are always present, whether we choose to acknowledge them or not—surge to the surface. Ignoring the emotional impact of change doesn’t make it go away. Rather, attempts to depress or devalue people’s response to change may amplify emotions.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to recognize and vicariously identify someone else’s experience and emotions. Empathy enables you to understand someone else’s point of view, the challenges posed by the change, what they value, and what they stand to lose by changing.
Empathizing doesn’t mean you have to feel the same thing, think the same way, make the other person feel better, or fix the situation so everyone is happy. Demonstrating empathy means you listen, acknowledge, and accept feelings and points of view as legitimate. Empathy is fundamentally about respect.
Empathy isn’t Only about Feelings
Three kinds of empathy play a part in change.
Emotional empathy, understanding another’s emotions and feelings. This is what usually comes to mind first when people hear the term. Emotions are a normal part of change—from excitement, to grief, puzzlement, loss of confidence, and anger. Too often, people who “drive” change dismiss these responses and urge people “just get on with it.”
Cognitive empathy means understanding someone else’s patterns of thought and how he makes sense of his world and events. Understanding how others think about things may help you frame a new idea in a way that meshes with their views. That also helps you—you’ll know more about the obstacles and issues you are likely to encounter.
Point-of-View empathy combines a bit of both of these, and it allows you to say genuinely, “I can see how it looks that way to you.” Once you extend that courtesy to someone, he is more likely to want to see how the situation looks to you.
Empathy provides information that helps with change in at least two ways:
You can refine your ideas about the change based on local information, which people are more likely to share when you make an effort to listen and connect with them.
People are more likely to listen to you when they feel listened-to.
The more you listen, the more you learn about the needs and values of the people facing a change. And that is the key: People rarely change because someone has a bright new idea. They change to save something they value. But you won’t learn that unless you empathize.